Save some outliers – two double-digit wins over Denver, for one – the 2020-21 Boston Celtics are a team that matches their competition. They live and die with the security of a coin flip. Flip on one night, and they’re heading to overtime with a team currently projected to pick in the top-three in the upcoming NBA Draft. Flip on another, and they’re trouncing what was then a title contender on the heels of a 31-3 run.
Tonight’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers was the definition of a coin flip, one that would land on… well, not T(r)ails, ruining a killer joke, but providing a slight seeding-cushion to the men in green. A 50-50 contest between teams in identical positions in their respective conferences may have gone the Celtics way by a final score of 116-115, but it felt as though it could’ve gone the other way practically every second. In a perfect world, these two teams would meet in a seven-game playoff series and somehow play 15 games. In that same perfect world, neither team slips up late in a season where a play-in tournament is coming into play for the first time. One can dream. Hopefully, dreams come true.
If you like offense, your dream certainly came true in the first quarter. The Celtics made six of their first nine shots to start the game, though that was surpassed still by the Blazers seven-for-nine clip from the jump. Five of those first few Portland makes came from three, placing a sour emphasis on the Celtics recent inability to stop their opponents from starting games white-hot from behind the arc. Though the Blazers slowed down, they still finished 7-of-13 from three in their 38-point first quarter. Against Denver, the Celtics trailed by 11 after the first, and gave up five triples; against the Timberwolves, the Celtics gave up a three-for-seven mark that contributed nicely to their 14-point deficit after one.
Fascinatingly enough, Boston won both of those games having trailed by double-digits following the first. A similar double-digit fate was avoided tonight – the Celtics trailed 38-30 – and the end result remained the same. So, maybe there’s no real correlation at all. Maybe Bob Ryan is right, and three-pointers are stupid. Maybe nothing about this season makes sense.
Worth mentioning, though, is the fact that the Blazers are the best first-quarter team in the NBA. Not to mention they drop to 24th in the second quarter. Here’s the problem, though: the Celtics have been a middling threat in too many respects this season. Their 1.9 net rating is reflective of a team that tends to play to the level of their opponent, no matter the quarter, no matter their advantage in the ever-important skill department.
So, when the Blazers scored a meager 22 in the second, the Celtics (naturally) responded with a sturdy, though not gang-busting 27, capped off by two missed free throws from Jayson Tatum. While Marcus Smart led a stretch of hustle plays – he played a significant hand in Portland’s eight first-half turnovers – and sparked a run in the middle of the second, the Blazers would respond with two buckets in the paint from Jusuf Nurkic and a late three from Norm Powell, regaining a 60-57 lead by quarter’s end.
Powell and Carmelo Anthony paced the Blazers, combining for 27 points in the half, a total that the Kemba Walker-Jaylen Brown duo would match for the Celtics. Team shooting numbers, though, told a slightly different story. The Blazers shot 48.8 percent from the field in the first half, while Boston shot 40.8 percent; all night, even, Portland felt a bit more selective with their shots. Not even Damian Lillard, who finished with 28, looked like he felt forced to pull from the logo to kickstart the offense; it was already roaring.
Much of the same persisted through the first six-minutes of the third – mini Celtics run here, mini Blazers burst there, leading to an angry Brad calling a timeout to stop the bleeding caused by a six-point deficit. The lead would change 11 times in the quarter.
Later in the period, the C’s found a way to cauterize the wound: with a Band-Aid named Jayson Tatum. His 17-point effort in the third helped fuel an 11-2 run that helped Boston carry a 92-87 lead into the fourth. By then, he had 24 of his eventual 34 — not 53, but certainly enough.
Up five with seven minutes to go in the final frame, Jayson Tatum went to the bench, and the Celtics were handed an opportunity to showcase exactly the kind of team they can be when the big(gest) guns need a breather. It started off on series of high notes. Marcus Smart forced a deflection as Anthony attempted to feed Nurkic in a naked-eye mismatch; Kemba Walker drained a transition three after pulling down a defensive rebound. But Lillard and Anthony continued to weather the storm brought on by Boston, scoring 13 of the Blazers first 15 in the fourth and never letting the Celtics lead grow to more than eight. Nothing — NOTHING — about this game ever felt comfortable; the silver lining is that this discomfort was undoubtedly true for both sides.
With two-and-a-half minutes remaining and the Boston lead at just three, CJ McCollum made what seemed to be the three biggest plays of the night. First, he ripped down two vital offensive rebounds. Then, while falling out of the bounds, threw the ball off of Jaylen Brown, allowing the possession to reset on the baseline. With McCollum taking it out, Lillard cut to the corner, caught the inbounds pass, and did what he does: drained a three. Tie game, 109 all.
On the other end, Tatum drove to the basket and missed a layup, not far from where Robert Williams lingered. He tipped the ball back up and in, giving the Celtics a 111-109 lead. Down came the Blazers, directly into a McCollum three, making it 112-111.
Then, Tatum happened. He drove to the rim, was fouled by Nurkic before the shot (but in the bonus), and drained both ensuing free throws. Lillard brought the ball up in the other direction, missed a step-back, and without a foul to give, the Blazers just had to defend. Tatum drained a step-back three, giving him 32 and the Celtics a four-point lead.
Following a Blazers timeout, Norman Powell drained a three, because of course he did. 116-115, Boston. 5.4 seconds to go, every one of them feeling like enough to set up a buzzer-beater from the man with a penchant for pointing at his imaginary watch.
With no timeouts, the Blazers had to foul following the Celtics timeout. They put Marcus Smart on the line, where he’d miss both (the second on purpose).
No matter, somehow. A brilliant instinctive trap forced Damian Lillard to attempt what NBA.com has deemed an 83-foot three-point attempt. He missed; I’m not positive it wasn’t still on line. Boston wins, 116-115.
Okay... got all that?
Following tonight, neither team finds itself in what one might exactly call a dream scenario standings-wise, though the Celtics will certainly take the extra cushion that comes with a win. Boston now finds itself in fifth place in the East and one whole game out of the play-in foursome, while Portland is in sixth and three games in the clear.
This is gonna be a fun ride. Apparently a bumpy one, too.